How to drive in snow

Having to venture out in an emergency during severe winter weather can pose a number of challenges. Here’s how to drive safely when the snow hits

When Mother Nature decides to bombard us with weather seemingly befitting every Hollywood disaster movie combined, it makes very little sense to even so much as consider hitting the road. That heart stopping moment where the front wheels spin over a ridge of slush, or the rear of the car slides away towards a parked car or lamppost, can lead to further danger, risking property and life. Not to mention your alloys…

Don’t think you can hit the speed limit with a 4x4 either; lose control of an SUV and you’ll have four powered wheels propelling you into the nearest obstacle or ditch. It’s not quite as easy as planting your foot into the carpet and waving like Royalty at each stranded Audi or BMW.

In fact, if you must drive through blizzard or snowstorm conditions, you must be completely equipped and perform a number of checks on your car – especially if it’s a classic. An old Land Rover may well have a reputation for being indestructible; but you don’t.

To keep you safe from that temptation to power slide through the empty car park, and prevent the wing crumping accident and windscreen glass explosion that follows, AutoClassics offer some hints and tips on how to survive Snowpocalypse, Icetastrophe or Blitzvastation with your vehicle.

Before travelling

Before setting off, you need to ensure you are carrying provisions. You may snort and believe we’ve gone all Bear Grylls, but trust us. At the time of writing, drivers have been stuck on the M40 in Glasgow for nearly 13 hours. The Red Cross have given them blankets and food – but they won’t have enough for everyone.

Even if it’s just a few chocolate bars or some fruit, if you end up stranded the hunger will be kept at bay. Especially if you have children or the elderly in the car.

Furthermore, besides food rations, keep some blankets in the car. You won’t be able to run the heater for long before the fuel needle takes a nose dive – should you be lucky enough to have a heater in the first place. Temperamental heater matrix or coolant leak? Pack those jumpers, hats and gloves. A set of boots makes for a wise addition in the event you have to push or wade through snow drifts.

Check your engine fluid levels, too. Your engine will be working far harder than usual against the elements, meaning oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid and coolant all need to be healthy. Make sure your windscreen washer bottle is filled, also. You may wish to spray de-icer onto the washer jets (and the ones located below the front headlamps should your car be posh) to prevent them from freezing over when you need them on the move.

Check all the lights work. Driving off with dull front bulbs, failed brake lights or a hesitant fog lamp could lead to a serious accident. The same mantra goes for the windscreen wipers. If these jam or are ineffective at removing snow, dirt and water – or rather smear them about across the screen – we would not advise you to go anywhere.

Pack a tow rope, shovel, jump leads, warning triangle and ice scraper into a box and stow them away in the rear footwell or the boot – wherever is easiest to get at.

With all the kit on board and drivetrain fluids residing around the maximum level, defrost the car entirely before you set away – as visibility is key to staying safe. Don’t use hot water to de-ice windscreens, as hot water can crack the glass and lead to further problems. Besides, the water will only freeze again if the temperature is below zero. It can also run off and freeze on the ground, leaving an ice patch that will no doubt catch you out later.

Should I fit winter tyres?

No one really seems to bother with winter tyres in the UK, as conditions rarely peak beyond what Siberians would call a warm summer. However, when the snow strikes, having a set of winter tyres on the car make for all the difference.

We understand that budgets don’t always allow for this – but if the rubbers are worn down to the canvas then you will stick to the road like a duck on a frozen lake. If your tyres are below 2mm in tread, you’ll be in for a tricky journey.

Don’t over inflate your tyres, either. If anything, if you feel traction is below par, let some air out of the tyre to improve the surface area in contact with the road.

Of course, if you have snow chains then fit them. However, if the roads are largely clear you shouldn't need them – as long spells of tarmac driving can damage them and your tyres.

On the road

Keep the revs as low as possible to avoid wheel slip out on the road. If the wheel does begin to lose traction, don’t follow through with the urge to plant the accelerator as this will only make things worse. Come off the power if the car starts to slide.

Use second gear to pull away if first simply spins the wheels, lifting the clutch gently and with low revs to keep the tyres firmly gripping the road. Stay in a higher gear for better control as you speed up – keep well below the speed limit should the vehicle feel unresponsive over frozen ground.

If your car is an automatic, it may have a ‘snow’ mode – especially Volvos, Saabs and Rover 75s, whereas some manufacturers suggest manual ‘2’ setting for a more relaxed take off.

Always maintain the right speeds for the conditions. Too fast and you will lose control, too slow and momentum will not be enough to crest steep hills.

Keep to tracks where you can keep the tyres on gritted grooves or tarmac, don’t follow routes where the drift strandling the middle of the road will leave your car beached.

Try and keep acceleration, or braking, as smooth as possible. Only employ the brake if you cannot steer the car out of trouble. It is worth bearing in mind that braking distances can exceed ten times over normal conditions.

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Braking distances

From 30mph, thinking distance and braking distance are equal – at 6 metres each, making for a 12 metre braking distance. In the snow and ice, thinking distance may be the same but bet on a minimum of 60 meters to stop.

From 50mph, with a 15 metre thinking time, you’ll need 380 metres worth of stopping distance. Therefore, leave a large space behind the car in front of you. Ideally, drive in a manner where you don’t rely on your brakes as heavily as normal.

Most modern cars have anti-lock brakes, but if you panic and slam them on they will not respond in the same way. If anything, on ice, they will lock and leave you sledging out of control.

Cadence brake if you need to perform an emergency stop, by softly yet firmly pumping the brake pedal to prevent wheel lock. Mimicking what your ABS would do, as soon as you feel the brakes locking, come off the brake pedal and repeat.

What if I get stuck?

Do not try to keep moving if the wheels begin to spin. This will only dig you further into the snow – making it far harder to escape.

If the car ends up in a snow drift or stuck, the Institute of Advanced Motorists recommends that you turn your wheels from side to side in order to push the snow out of the way.

Take your shovel to clear as much snow as you can out of the way. Next, pour sand or gravel in front of the powered wheels to gain better traction. If you don’t have grit or sand – clean cat litter can also be used. Please note we said clean.

Using a light touch, shift from forward to reverse and back again to rock the car and get it going again.

Should the vehicle be properly stuck and unable to move, keep warm by running the engine – but please ensure the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow as toxic fumes – carbon monoxide – can enter the car. This situation has been known to kill people in the past. If you can smell exhaust gasses, immediately turn off the engine and open the window.

Even if you are safe, never run the engine for more than 15 minutes at a time. Stay close, or within the cabin, of your car to keep as warm as possible. This is where your provisions will come in handy.

If you need to seek help, remember that heavy snow can leave you disorientated when separated from your car. If the amount of snow continues to rise, tie some coloured cloth to your car so others can see you are there.

Ensure you attach the tow rope to a towing eye should someone be around to pull you out. DO NOT attach the rope to your bumper as this may pull it off completely.

You may find that the farmer becomes your best friend once he has saved you...

Four-wheel drives

The likes of a Range Rover, Land Rover, Jeep or Mitsubishi Shogun will offer far greater traction and ground clearance for when the going gets rough. But you still must be careful.

Unlike two-wheel drive vehicles, if the 4x4 begins to slip or wallow across into a slide, you’ve got four wheels pushing you forward into trouble rather than two. You are not invincible with a 4x4.

The vehicles may be more capable, but you must keep to the aforementioned advice. And the below advice if you begin to slide.

Turn into the skid

This is not Hollywood – you won’t often slide in a controlled fashion that is easy to catch. If the rear end begins to slide out, turn into the skid. Turning away – although perhaps the natural reaction – will result in a spin that may end in a crash. Spinning into an oncoming articulated lorry at 45mph will probably result in a fatal accident.

If the slide continues, attempt to cadence brake and keep the wheel straight. DO NOT panic and accelerate. You may catch it one way, but it will begin to fish tail and end up in an uncontrollable mess. As demonstrated with the AutoClassics Jaguar XJ40.

Road manners

Finally, keep your wits and manners about you. People will drive slower in bad conditions – this is no excuse for risky overtaking manoeuvres or speeding. Do not push yourself to make up for lost time, as the pressure and resulting accident may not only wipe you off the face of the earth, but also take another person or family with you. You certainly don’t want to mount a busy pavement and regret it while sitting in court.

At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own actions – but take speed, braking distance and the above tips into consideration and the journey should hopefully be as stress free as possible.

Pictures courtesy of Calum Brown, Phil Johnson and Sam Skelton

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